|Norm Dombrowski's Happy Notes|
The music and legacy continue!
Variety and Beautiful Polka Music
CDs and cassette tapes available by mail direct from 304 North Point Drive, Stevens Point WI 54481, or by email from JoeL8 at charter dot net
Or better yet, come see us in person!
Norm's brother Chet Dombrowski picks up the sticks to keep the legacy going.
For distinguished Service in their Performance and Dedication to Polka Music throughout the State of Wisconsin.
Awarded the 27th day of February, 2010.
Signed "Tuba Dan" Jerabek, President WPHF
Added 8 June 2003: The Grand March as done in Thorp Wisconsin
Click here for more information from the Wisconsin Arts Board about Norm Dombrowski and the Happy Notes, including kids activities and some fun stuff to think about. This part of the Arts Board web site is where students and educators meet traditional and ethnic artists.
Added 4 July 2001: An Evening With The Happy Notes
If you need something on your computer to play these files the VideoLan Converter program works really well.
Yes Sir She's My Baby I love Marie's voice on this one.
Happy Fellow Semi naughty Polish lyrics.
Mountaineer Polka Some "sax and violins."
No Beer Today A crowd favorite.
Astronaut Polka A classic, Norm's visit to the Billboard charts.
Tick Tock Polka Short video taken by the piano player. May require an update to the RealOne Player.
E.I.O. Polka A classic, with Ken Camlek singing.
None Do I Care Polka Norm on Polish vocals.
Hopeless Polka Nice and upbeat. Not hopeless at all.
Portage County Executive Mark Maslowski joins us at the SPASH Culture Fest, May of 2009. Picture courtesy Gene Kemmeter from the Portage County Gazette.
|October 11, 2000||
5:30 PM - 7:30 PM|
Click to see pictures from the papers.
Click to see more pictures we took.
Click to read the editorial from the Point Journal.
| Clark Street Bridge|
Business Highway 10
Downtown Stevens Point
|June 24, 2000||12:00 Noon - 4:00 PM|
Picture #1 Group picture.
Picture #2 Mark, Joe D., Ken, Norm.
Picture #3 Marie, Joe L.
Thanks to Roger Kemp for photos.
|June 24 - July 5, 1998||Wisconsin's 150th|
Anniversary as a State
Festival of American Folklife
National Mall, Washington DC
|August 20 - 23, 1998||Wisconsin Folklife Festival||Capitol Square and Madison Park
Click the small pictures to see them full size.
|The Happy Notes on the national mall. Left to right: Joe Dombrowski, Mark Dombrowski, Norm Dombrowski, Joe Larson, Marie Kubowski, Ken Camlek. (Thanks to Roger Kemp for this picture.)|
|Performing. Marie (on Star concertina) had to bandage her knee after this show but we had fun. (Roger Kemp photo)|
|Luxurious backstage accommodations. Busy day on July 4 in Washington. Nick Kubowski is handling security at the rope. (Joe Larson photo)|
|We made the front page of the Stevens Point Journal twice that summer. This is from the second time. Left to right: Mark, Joe D., Ken, Norm, Marie on piano, Jon Dombrowski on Elkavox accordion, and Joe L. on acoustic guitar.|
Playing: Horsey Keep Your Tail Up. (Midi by Joe Larson)
Norm Dombrowski and the Happy Notes Discography
Here's a link to a good article about the polka tradition in Wisconsin, written by Richard March.
The following was a handout at one of our recent concerts at the Folklore Village in Dodgeville, Wisconsin:
Polish-American Polka Tradition
Saturday, May 9, 1998, 8:00 PM
This series is supported in part by the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Friends of Folklore Village.
Norm Dombrowski -- drummer, singer, and leader of the Happy Notes -- has been playing Polish music since the late 1950s. Born on a farm east of Arnott, Wisconsin, in 1937, Dombrowski grew up in a heavily Polish-American area that includes Portage and southern Marathon counties. His parents spoke Polish at home and he learned the language from them, as well as at the parish school in nearby Fancher.
The Poles who settled central Wisconsin in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were chiefly peasants from Poznan and Kaszubia. They included fiddlers and clarinetists steeped in the old wiejska or village style of rural Poland that typically combined a lead violin or clarinet with harmony violins and a bowed cello. Some also favored "squeezeboxes," like the button accordian and the German or Cheminitzer concertina, that had swept Europe in the late nineteenth century. In Stevens Point, Polonia, Bevent, and their rural surrounds, immigrant musicians and their offspring played tunes for couple dances: polkas, waltzes, obereks, mazurkas, krakowiaks, and kujawiaks.
When Norm Dombrowski was growing up, however, the local tradition of Polish dance music had been overtaken by the influence of other ethnic polka styles in the Upper Midwest. In the late 1920s a combination of live radio broadcasts, commercial recordings, good roads, dependable cars, and a network of ballrooms made it possible for some polka bands to turn professional. Minnesota's "Whoopee John" Wilfahrt launched a barnstorming career from the 1920s through the early 1960s that saw his band play some 300 jobs a year in community halls throughout the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. During roughly the same period Romy Gosz, from the Manitowoc area of eastern Wisconsin, achieved similar popularity.
The polka styles of Wilfahrt and Gosz won many musical converts in Norm Dombrowski's home territory. During his teen years, in the 1950s, local Poles like Dominic Slusarski's Jolly Seven and Benny Gagas' Downbeats embraced German-Bohemian sounds. But Norm Dombrowski wasn't interested. Although highly skilled, these performers lurked behind music stands, relied on sheet music, and paused between tunes. "They didn't seem too lively to me." It was, after all, the era of rock 'n' roll, a time when most polka-steeped teenagers forsook their parents' music for the jumped-up abandon of Elvis Presley and Little Richard.
That is, until the arrival of Li'l Wally and the emergence of the "honky" style of Polish polka music.
Born in Chicago of immigrant parents in 1930, Walter "Li'l Wally" Jagiello began singing at Polish picnics and taverns as a six year old. At ten he was performing with Chicago's polka legend Eddie Zima, before forming his own band in 1944. Jagiello's broad repertoire of sentimental and salacious Polish folksongs, his heartfelt and exuberant vocals, his antic showmanship, and the slow surging improvisatory feel of his band inspired devotees of the honky sound that ranged from elders recalling the old country parties of their youth, to youths in search of a soulful ethnic music to rival rock. Like his crosstown contemporary, bluesman Muddy Waters, Jagiello invested his culture's music with a raucous power that was at once down home and up town.
In the mid-1950s Li'l Wally set out from his Windy City base to win disciples in Polish strongholds throughout the Upper Midwest. Among them, Norm Dombrowski:
Wally played the Peplin ballroom near Mosinee for two nights. There were huge crowds. I went after work. And I was impressed because there was no sheet music, Wally stood when he drummed and sang, and he just kept on playing. It was very lively, like rock 'n' roll.
Soon after Norm took up drums and began singing an array of Polish songs he'd learned from records.
In 1960 he formed the Happy Notes with Jerry Halkowski, Ron Gruna, and Marv Stencil. The group emulated Li'l Wally, Marion Lush, the High Notes, the Naturals, and other Chicago Polish honky bands of the era.
Probably our band is after Li'l Wally, but I don't think we could imitate him... We play a song different every time. Maybe people like that.
Their first recording was "Ashland Avenue Hop" b/w "Stevens Point Special," a 45 on the Gold label of sometime sideman Duke Wright. Over the next sixteen years, the Happy Notes recorded half a dozen albums and nearly a score of 45s.
By the late 1970s Norm Dombrowski was the only original Happy Note still playing with the band. Yet as personnel turned over, he was gradually able to find new players among his own children. Recorded in 1994, the Happy Notes' cassette It's My 35th Anniversary features an all-Dombrowski lineup, with the exception of trumpeter Ken Camlek: sons Mark, Jon, and Joe on reeds, accordion, and trumpet respectively; daughters Jane on vocals, and Marie on piano, concertina, and violin. At the center of it all is Norm Dombrowski on drums and frequent lead vocals.
Whether singing or playing, Norm reckons, "I'm trying to feel the music." Captivated by the stories conveyed in Polish lyrics, he favors a dynamic sound wherein vocals "stand out," giving way to instrumental surges only when a verse concludes. Moreover his singing heroes -- Li'l Wally, Gene Wisniewski, Marion Lush -- all gave their Polish songs a "certain beat or accent that goes with the words." Recalling an old timer who told him, "If you can't say it, you can't play it," Dombrowski tries to drum "according to the way I sing." His active rhythmic patterns include such elements of classic honky flash as "riding the cymbal" to create a jubilant texture and explosive "rimshots" delivered both on and off the beat. "It depends on how I feel like playing it."
In the 1990s, a time when many Polish polka bands play a national festival circuit, the Happy Notes continue to make their music close to home. Stalwarts at church picnics, they are in considerable demand as a wedding band. Polish weddings are legendary and no wedding is complete without a dance. Up until the early 1970s, local Polish wedding dances began the afternoon following the ceremony and, with a break for supper, continued until midnight. The following day was poprawiny, a sort of post-celebration, and the band played all afternoon. Nowadays, instead of playing twelve hours, the bands play only four. "I think people just can't give 'er that long anymore."
Yet in their four hours, the Happy Notes give a great deal. Playing wedding after wedding, they orchestrate the grand march, the bride's dances, the appropriate songs. They have become the musical curators of their region's Polish wedding traditions.
These notes by Jim Leary are drawn in part from a tape recorded interview with Norm Dombrowski, Stevens Point, April 26, 1988.
Folklore Village Farm
3210 County Highway BB
Dodgeville, WI 53533